Pharrell ‘G I R L’ – Review

14 Mar
Remember when Pharrell Williams used to make really innovative hip hop? I’d forgotten, and I had to remind myself by searching for old videos on youtube. And yep, there he is on ‘In Search Of…’ rapping over schizoid beats. There’s no doubt that the thing he was probably best known for a decade ago has been overshadowed; firstly by his unbelievable work as a pop producer with The Neptunes, and more recently as a singer of retro-soul disco. He did pop up on the biggest hip hop album of 2012, ‘Good Kid Mad City’, as well as releases by Odd Future and Frank Ocean, but Pharell Williams’ days as a futurist, experimental Hip Hop personality are well and truly in the past. He’s shaved off the surname as any pop star worth their weight has to: enter, Pharrell.
As somebody who once revived the careers of Britney and Justin Timberlake (amongst others) it’s a bit ironic that it took Daft Punk to rejuvenate Pharrell’s career, but indeed that is what was needed and that is what happened. His fairly serviceable vocal was probably the least important element of the still stunning ‘Get Lucky’ but there’s no doubt it put him back on the map. Then ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Happy’ came along and confirmed his position as the most ubiquitous pop star of the  year. Of course, It’s a bit odd that one of this century’s most forward thinking artists should abandon their innovative streak entirely, but that is exactly what Pharell has done over the past twelve months. Those three singles have eradicated any memory of Pharrell Williams, the innovator. In itself this seemingly populist and tacky move is actually fairly brave, but only because he achieved it with such style and success. If he had gone down the commercial route and failed, he would have destroyed any credibility he once built up. As it is, ‘Get Lucky’, ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Happy’ were excellent, and tapped into a seemingly endless reserve of good will. Pharrelll became an unlikely comeback kid.
It was no real surprise that Columbia snapped him up to make an LP, but it was surprising how quickly it was announced and then released; no doubt to capitalise on the success of that trio of hit singles. The rush release perhaps explains why nothing on ‘G I R L’ comes even remotely close to matching their success – yet they all follow the same formula, which makes ‘G I R L’ a predictable but surprisingly disappointing album.
Whether he was hooking up with Daft Punk and Nile on ‘Get Lucky’, Robin Thicke on ‘Blurred Lines’ or the minions on ‘Happy’, Pharrell MK2 seems only to work when paired with a slightly out of sync guest. Therefore there are a few guest appearances on ‘G I R L’ but all are obvious, and none provide the mismatched friction that spurred on those other duets.  ‘Gust of Wind’ features Daft Punk, who sing it by numbers in their increasingly confident robotic tones. As a song it falls way short of ‘Get Lucky’, and even a bit short of ‘Loose Yourself to Dance.’ Where those songs served the groove, ‘Gust of Wind’ serves the rather lacklustre melody and is all the more forgettable for it. The pedestrian pace and static string arrangement make it feel twice as long as it really is.
Justin Timberlake appears briefly on ‘Brand New’ and reminds you what an essential combination these two made on ‘Justified’, now unbelievably 12 years old. It’s sort of ironic that Justin could have used some of Pharrell’s energy and economy on last years ‘20/20 experience, whilst Pharell could use Justin’s ambition and vision here. Maybe they should swap phone numbers and make this a more regular thing. JT sounds instantly more youthful and energised than he has done in years, even if the song is really rather forgettable.
Elsewhere Miley Cyrus produces her most shocking turn yet by failing to do anything even remotely shocking on the totally middle of the road ‘Come Get It’, Jojo shows up on the most ambitious and interesting song on here ‘Lost Queen’, and Alicia Keys duets on the nice ‘Know Who You Are.’ Over ten songs Pharrell doesn’t put a foot seriously wrong – it’s all very smooth and enjoyable – but that’s because he doesn’t venture outside of a comfort zone. That makes ‘G I R L’ a likeable failure as far as I’m concerned.
After working so closely with other artists, and borrowing so heavily from other sounds, you can’t help but come to the conclusion that Pharrell hasn’t carved out enough space for himself here. The beat boxing on ‘Brand New’ reminds you of ‘Like I Love You’, the clicks and pops on ‘Marylin Monroe’ take you back to ‘Milkshake’, and the swirling falsetto melodies instantly make you reminisce about ‘She Loves to Move’ – and yet those songs had an original flair. Like JT on ‘The 20/20 Experience Part 2’, Pharrell trades on the past, both his own and pop music in general, far too often and far too casually. So many years on, these same takes on his signature moves sound as old-fashioned and snoozy as the constant Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye nods. Pharrell uses the obvious signifiers and cheats of his past but forgets that the most defining trait of his older material was the originality and attitude.
‘G I R L’ is overwhelmingly nice and pleasant and has about as much attitude as a teddy bear. If this had been a collection of ten ‘Get Lucky’s or ‘Blurred Lines’ we would be forced to look past that, but it simply isn’t. These are ten good songs, that don’t really combine to make anything significant. It may be unfair that Pharrell’s past success is hanging over him like a shadow, but when he makes the links so obvious you can’t help but compare ‘G I R L’ to the great albums he’s worked on in the past. It just doesn’t stand up because, some questionable lyrics aside, ‘G I R L’ does nothing to make you question, think, engage or react; it simply asks that you switch your mind off and enjoy.

6/10

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